Sustained Outrage

What we’re reading: More on BPA; backlogged dockets

Bisphenol A, that substance that lines cans and other food packaging and has been banned from baby bottles in Canada, has been found to affect the intestines of rats in a study at the National Institute of Agronomic Research in Toulouse, says a story from Agence France-Presse.  Dozens of studies for the past 10 years have linked BPA to problems such as breast cancer, obesity and early puberty. This time, researchers found that even low levels of BPA messed with the permeability of the intestinal lining. Rats exposed before birth had a higher risk of developing severe intestinal inflammation as adults.

Judges in New York may face disciplinary action for having backlogged dockets, the state’s top court ruled Tuesday, Oliver Mackson of the Times Herald-Record reported.

Here’s our look at a few of the stories that caught our attention this week:

A teacher is trying to change the world for 10,000 children living in Harlem, with charter schools, on-site medical care, strict rules and even cash rewards. And he is having success, 60 Minutes reports.

Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review discusses “Hacked E-mails and ‘Journalistic Tribalism’ and in the process provides one of the best discussions to date of the controversy over stolen electronic messages of some of the world’s leading climate change scientists.

An annual party for the families of homicide victims in Baltimore, intended to help survivors grieve, has outgrown its venue, the Baltimore Sun‘s Peter Hermann reports.

Once again, here’s a rundown of some stories that attracted our attention this week:

As more states fund preschool programs, people debate the value of pretend play in preschool classrooms, reports The Washington Post. Researchers say pretend is crucial to development. Schools unaccustomed to very young children have not always made time or space for it. Speaking of child development…

A New York school is taking kids back to nature, literally, rain or shine. The “Forest Kindergarten” at a Waldorf school in Saratoga Springs takes kids into a forest every day to counter the “nature deficit” identified in today’s children, the New York Times reports.

Enforcement of certain types of civil rights cases dropped off during the Bush administration, according to a new report by the General Accountability Office obtained by the New York Times.

There’s been an interesting back-and-forth of sorts over the role of the Internet and news aggregators in the economic hardships confronting print media. As paidcontent.org reported, Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton told the World Newspaper  Congress that “free [online content] costs too much,” while Google CEO Eric Schmidt maintained in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that the suggestion that Google has been getting rich off of newspapers “misrepresents the reality.”

Once again, here is a snapshot of some of the stories and reporting that caught our eye this week. To make up for last week’s hiatus, we’re presenting a slightly expanded list:

Last week’s shootings have focused national attention on Fort Hood, but the area around Killeen, the Texas town where the military facility is based, had already seen a spike in violence and crime, including domestic abuse, since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the New York Times reported.

In a study published on Veterans Day, two Harvard medical professors concluded that 2,266 veterans died in 2008 because they didn’t have health insurance, which is more than 14 times the number of active American troops killed last year in Afghanistan, the Agence France-Presse noted.

As many as 21 streams in West Virginia could be vulnerable to the golden algae that caused a massive fish kills in Texas and Dunkard Creek, according to the journal Environmental Science and Technology. U.S. EPA scientists say many other rivers and streams in neighboring states could also be at risk, the study states.

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, takes an in-depth look at the slippery slope being navigated by law enforcement as it goes after online sexual predators in the December issue of Vanity Fair.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of “SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance” in The New Yorker says authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner ignore “whole libraries’ worth of data on global warming” and that “just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong.”

Sodium dichromate update

As I reported earlier, the Department of Veterans Affairs has promised careful medical monitoring for soldiers (including members of the West Virginia National Guard’s 1092nd Engineer Battalion) who were exposed to the toxic chemical as they guarded the Qarmat Ali water plant in Iraq in 2003.

I promised earlier to post links to DCBureau.org‘s investigation into what happened at Qarmat Ali. You can read No Contractor Left Behind Part III: “Just Suck It Up and Move On” here and Part IV: Congress’s Powerless Probe here.

Also, NPR picked up a piece by West Virginia Public Broadcasting‘s Keri Brown, titled Soldiers Blame Contractor For Exposure To Chemical, and aired it during All Things Considered. You can listen to audio here.

Toxic time bomb

That’s how DCBureau.org’s Adam Lichtenheld describes sodium dichromate, a type of hexavalent chromium, a highly carcinogenic chemical made famous by Erin Brockovich.

As the Gazette has reported, up to 150 members of West Virginia’s National Guard may have been exposed to sodium dichromate in Iraq in 2003. The soldiers, as well as National Guard units from Indiana and Oregon, helped guard the Qarmat Ali water plant as KBR contractors repaired the facility.

You can read the Gazette’s coverage here, here and here.

Now, in No Contractor Left Behind Part I: KBR, the Pentagon, and the Soldiers Who Paid, the non-profit news organization DCBureau.org has published the results of their own investigation into the aftermath of Qarmet Ali. Here’s how they see it:

Between April and September of 2003, the Indiana Guardsmen and their comrades from West Virginia and Oregon were subjected to a deadly health threat that would not be tolerated in any workplace in America.

Six years later, these once-vigorous soldiers now find themselves feeble and fraught with worry. Two have died from cancer. Another is in end-of-life hospice care. Dozens more suffer from frequent respiratory problems and chronic illnesses.

But only in the past year have most of these soldiers learned of their exposure to sodium dichromate — a poisonous chemical that has been shown to cause long-term health problems, including cancer. Their plight offers a scathing indictment of the United States Army and its largest private contractor, KBR Inc.

I’ll update with links to additional parts of DCBureau.org’s series as they are published.

Update #1: Here’s a link to No Contractor Left Behind Part II: KBR’s Negligence.

As I’m typing, the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is holding a hearing on service-connected exposure (which will include testimony about Qarmat Ali).

Behind closed courthouse doors in Cabell County

I have to admit that I was pretty stunned when I read this article by Curtis Johnson, my counterpart at the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. In Curtis’ telling, Cabell County Circuit Judge Alfred Ferguson kicked him out of an evidentiary hearing in open court after Curtis (quite correctly) refused to promise not to report on the hearing’s contents.

Here’s what Ferguson said later by way of an explanation, according to the article:

“When I’ve got this hearing scheduled and people there … I just can’t stop the court proceedings for the news media,” he said.

Oh, yes you can, judge. In fact, that’s exactly what you should have done. Or do West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals’ rulings on press access no longer apply?

This isn’t the only time the issue of excluding the press from a criminal hearing has come up recently (cough, Tim Halloran, cough). So here, for the benefit of Ferguson, Halloran and any other judicial officer who want to arbitrarily boot reporters from his or her courtroom without prior warning, is a refresher on West Virginia’s open courts laws.

First, there’s Article III, Section 17 of the West Virginia Constitution:

The courts of this State shall be open, and every person, for an injury done to him, in his person, property or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law; and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.

In fact, under West Virginia law, even quasi-judicial proceedings, such as disciplinary hearings for doctors and lawyers, are open to the public, thanks in no small part to the crusading efforts of late Gazette publisher W.E. “Ned” Chilton III in Daily Gazette Co.,Inc. v. Committee on Legal Ethics of the West Virginia State Bar (1984) and Daily Gazette Co., Inc. v. West Virginia Board of Medicine (1986).

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EPA drops ball on safety of shredded tires on playgrounds

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Earlier this year, a big Associated Press story told the nation that the U.S. EPA was studying the safety of those shredded tires used under playground equipment — and that EPA might reverse its position and not publicly back the practice. The AP story, published in June, sounded like EPA was doing the right thing:

The EPA is concluding a limited study of air and surface samples at four fake-surface fields and playgrounds that use recycled tires — the same material used under the Obama family’s new play set at the White House.

Although the EPA for years has endorsed recycled-rubber surfaces as a means of decreasing playground injuries, its own scientists now have pointed to research suggesting potential hazards from repeated exposure to bits of shredded tire that can contain carcinogens and other chemicals, according to internal EPA documents.

The scientists cited gaps in scientific evidence, despite other reviews showing little or no health concern, and urged their superiors to conduct a broad health study to inform parents on kids’ safety.

Results from the agency’s limited study, which began last year, are expected within weeks.

But it turns out that’s not the real story, according to this report earlier in the week from the great investigative reporter Andrew Schneider and his Cold Truth Web site.  Citing documents obtained under the FOIA  by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Schneider explains:

Earlier this month, Eric Wachter, director of the EPA Office of the Executive Secretariat replied and conceded that “The Agency has not conducted research to evaluate children’s ‘health effects’ from tire crumb constituents.”

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Meth labs: Public health and environmental costs

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This apartment at 157 Miracle Drive, one of the units at Miracle Acres in St. Albans, was boarded up and condemned for containing a meth lab. Kanawha County Planning Director David Armstrong said his crew has had to re-board the residence multiple times because trespassers keep breaking into it.

I don’t often have reason to get involved in the Gazette’s coverage of methamphetamine labs around the Kanawha County area. But a couple of items caught my eye that I wanted to pass on to Sustained Outrage readers.

First, Dave Yaussy at the West Virginia Environmental Law blog pointed out this Bracket Report Pages item about the increasing dangers meth labs are posing to hazardous materials cleanup crews:

Meth labs are extremely dangerous and even being in the vicinity of a an illegal lab could mean injury or death. The dangerous chemicals involved in the production of meth will leave behind hazardous waste residue. Many of the ingredients that are being used in meth production are many common household chemicals that can be found in household cleaners and paints. These chemicals include benzene and methylene sometimes chloride or trichloroethane and toluene. Methamphetamine may also include other chemicals and solvents such as phosphorous iodine and metals.

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NY Times editorial on Bayer, chemical safety

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Photo by U.S. Chemical Safety Board of what was left of the chemical tank that blew up last August at Bayer CropScience in Institute.

The Sunday New York Times features an editorial about the August explosion that killed two Bayer CropScience Institute plant workers, and what the investigation of that tragedy says about chemical plant safety across the country.

The editorial is available online here. Previous Times news coverage of the controversy is available here, here and here.

Here’s a bit of what the Times editorial page had to say:

There was a major explosion last year at a Bayer chemical plant in West Virginia, in which two employees were killed. Congressional investigators reported in April that the blast could have been far more deadly had it gone in a different direction. These revelations provide more evidence — as if more were needed — that the nation needs a tough chemical plant security law, this year.

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